It’s a different sort of altitude that UCLA must contend with in its Pac-12 Conference opener against Colorado.
The team known for playing its home games a mile above sea level is going to bring an imposing frontcourt into Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday evening to face a Bruins counterpart that’s depleted in that department.
Redshirt senior forward Cody Riley will sit out because of the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee that has sidelined him since the first half of UCLA’s season opener. Redshirt freshman Mac Etienne is out for the season with a knee injury.
That leaves Myles Johnson and Kenneth Nwuba as the only Bruins big men to contend with Colorado’s Evan Battey, Jabari Walker and Tristan da Silva.
The trio of Buffaloes powered their team to an 80-76 victory over Stanford in the Pac-12 opener on Sunday. The 6-foot-8 Battey, a Los Angeles native who overcame a stroke nearly four years ago that forced him to relearn how to talk, scored a career-high 22 points while making all four of his three-pointers against the Cardinal.
The 6-9 Walker, an Inglewood native who added considerable bulk to his muscular 215-pound frame, has three consecutive double-doubles while the 6-9 Da Silva — the younger brother of former Stanford standout Oscar da Silva — has scored in double figures in three of his last four games.
Colorado (6-1 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) will hold a size advantage over the fifth-ranked Bruins (6-1, 0-0) at nearly every position except center, where Johnson and Nwuba — each 6-10 — will have a slight edge over Battey. At 6-7, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. could spend time defending Battey if Jaquez’s bigger teammates get into foul trouble or have problems staying with Battey near the three-point line.
“Myles is our big guy, so probably maybe start him on Evan,” Jaquez said when asked about possible matchups, “but other than that, we kind of just see how the flow of the game goes.”
Johnson has brought the defensive presence expected since his arrival as a graduate transfer from Rutgers, leading the team with 13 blocked shots and ranking second with seven steals. Last season, Jalen Hill blocked 15 shots in 14 games before retiring from basketball and Riley blocked 22 shots in 31 games.
Foul trouble is one of UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s biggest concerns given the lack of interior depth and Colorado’s success getting to the free-throw line. The Buffaloes take an average of 26.4 free throws per game, ranking fifth in the nation, and made 19 of 26 attempts against Stanford.
“They do a great job of attacking the basket, putting pressure on the rim and offensive rebounding,” Cronin said, “so they’re not quick to shoot a three, they’re going to run their offense, execute and get the ball at the rim on you, that’s why they get fouled so much.”
Orchestrating Colorado’s attack is sophomore point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, who has taken over for the departed McKinley Wright IV. At 6-2, Barthelemy is often the shortest Buffalo on the court, with plenty of teammates to look up to.
When: 6:30 p.m., Wednesday.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.
Update: This is the second season of the Pac-12’s expanded 20-game conference schedule that has teams playing each other in December. As far as Cronin is concerned, it’s (relatively) new but not improved. Cronin would prefer fewer conference games in favor of more marquee nonconference matchups — such as his team’s games against Villanova and Gonzaga — to boost college basketball’s appeal. “The powers that be in our sports need to look at every possible way to create interest in our sport in November and December,” Cronin said. “We can’t just be a sport about March Madness.” The Cronin Doctrine calls for Power Five teams playing 16 or 18 conference games in addition to four or five nonconference games against quality opponents as part of home-and-home arrangements that avoid neutral courts. “It’s better for college basketball, it brings more national interest than another Pac-12 Conference game,” Cronin said, noting the higher TV ratings and increased ticket sales that such matchups would generate.